This has the look of a changing-of-the-guard year for two prominent pro quarterbacks, young Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals and aging Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers. For if Palmer wins next Sunday in Baltimore, as many analysts expect, the Bengals will be one of only three 2005 NFL teams that are 7-2 or better after nine weeks.
Meanwhile, if Pittsburgh succeeds that day in Wisconsin — which is also generally expected — the Packers will continue as one of two 2005 pro clubs with only one win apiece. That would be embarrassing for proud Green Bay. But when Palmer defeated Favre Sunday, 21-14, there were some clear indications that a changing of the guard is indeed imminent.
Most important, it was Palmer who carried his team again, whereas the more experienced Favre couldn't.
Moreover, Favre went into the game as the NFL's 2005 leader in touchdown passes — with 13 to Palmer's 12 — but emerged in second place when Palmer threw three to Favre's one.
Palmer in his school days was one of a bunch of USC Heisman Trophy winners. As a pro, he only has one critical problem: He's on a team that lacks a big-time defense.
And that is a deep irony. When the Bengals brought in Marvin Lewis as their coach in January, 2003, he was a widely recognized defensive genius. Yet in Ohio, he has spent his time carefully building one of the league's smoothest offenses. Thus he's two deep in good running backs with Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry and two deep in model receivers with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Plus Palmer.
Lewis is still unacceptably weak, however, on defense. What the Bengals need most is a big, strong, Super Bowl defense, one powerful enough to control the game against teams like Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.
Favre Excepted, Packers Disintegrate
OLD PRO FAVRE, 36, and close to retirement, is good enough to be going out a winner if his team hadn't disintegrated so completely. But he isn't about to give up or give in. On his final play Sunday, beaten but unbowed, Favre still tried to complete his last pass underhanded. Downed, frustrated, hammering the ground with a fist, he might have been someone that Welsh poet Dylan Thomas pictured in these lines:
Do not go gentle into that good night. . . .Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The Favre problem isn't that he threw five interceptions, or that he's down to his third-string running back, or that his only reliable receiver now is Donald Driver. He can cope with offensive adversity. It's the rest of the memorable old Packer machine that's broken. His coach, Mike Sherman, who still handles offensive strategy satisfactorily, doubled too long as general manager.
By the time Green Bay made a change there, Sherman had erred in too many personnel decisions and had let the defense slide too far. Nor is there any guarantee that new General Manager Ted Thompson is the answer. For a quarterback of Favre's talent and temperament, he has plenty to rage about these days in Green Bay.
Rams Feature Disruptive Runner
THE ST. LOUIS RAMS know more about adversity today than the home folks know in Green Bay or at other spots on the NFL map. Facing the defensively potent Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8, the Rams were minus their quarterback, Marc Bulger; their two famous, gifted receivers, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce; and their coach, Mike Martz, and still won, 21-14.
They won because Martz has skillfully schooled the Rams' pass-offense replacements, including quarterback Jamie Martin, whose long pass to Kevin Curtis for an 83-yard touchdown was a candidate for the NFL's most perfectly placed this year. Of the three interceptions charged to Martin, two were deflected along the way. The winning coach was Martz-replacement Joe Vitt, who has now won two of three.
The Rams also hurt Jacksonville with running back Steven Jackson, who at 6 feet 2 and 231 pounds is still a raw talent without much knowledge of what to do except run fast. He struck for 179 yards while averaging 7.2, mostly on end runs. The Ram goal was to get him to turn the corner, where his size, speed and momentum tended to discourage smaller tacklers.
McNabb Injuries Give Broncs a Chance
THE DENVER BRONCOS might also have turned a corner to become a viable candidate for the AFC championship in Week 8 when they survived a strange afternoon in Colorado to turn back the Philadelphia Eagles, 49-21. Despite the rout size of the score, the Eagles, the NFC's best ballclub of recent years, were probably going to win if quarterback Donovan McNabb had played in good health.
It is obvious now that McNabb's several internal injuries have combined to drop the Eagles to 4-3 in the Eastern standings less than a year after they came within three points of winning the Super Bowl. This is otherwise the same Philadelphia bunch that pranced through the NFC a year ago.
In fact, two other Eagle stars, receiver Terrell Owens and runner-receiver Brian Westbrook, seem even sharper now. On a pass from McNabb, Owens scored a 91-yard touchdown Sunday. And Westbrook was a continuous Philadelphia factor in both the rushing and receiving game.
But wounded quarterback McNabb is not the man he was when fresh and healthy. Among other things, his chest injury makes it impossible for him to throw his best passes, the ones he threw so often last year as the director of the NFL's only all-out pass offense.
The sternum injury painfully and severely restricts his normal passing motion, meaning that, on pass plays, he's just a shadow of the real McNabb. His physical problem is a reaction to the flagrant late hits he took in the first month of the season. Always impervious to blitzers in other years because of his mobility and the quickness with which he can unload, McNabb is often now a sitting duck. The Broncos won for that reason.
Plummer, Vick Strangely Compatible
THE DENVER CHANGE this season is that Coach Mike Shanahan has figured a way to get 300 passing yards with zero interceptions from quarterback Jake Plummer. In a two-fold attack on the Plummer interception problem, Shanahan first removed the seven-step-drop pass from the Denver game plan.
Then, using other kinds of passes, he has been taking fuller advantage of the reality that Plummer is the league's most effective out-of-the-pocket passer. A novel NFL quarterback — just as Michael Vick is in Atlanta — Plummer runs around to pass in the same sense that Vick runs around to run.
So there is now an outside chance that because their teams are as effective as their quarterbacks are different from conventional quarterbacks, Plummer and Vick will meet on Detroit's Super Bowl field Feb. 5.
Plummer is the more likely to get there because he is the better passer. Against a team that lined up three pass-defense Pro Bowlers Sunday, he penetrated the Eagle secondary 25 times for a net 309 yards. In part, he could do this because he had three helpful receivers, 6-foot-3 Ashley Lelie, 6-0 Rod Smith and a 6-2 rookie from Central Missouri St., Todd Devoe.
With the good running backs Shanahan always has — this year's are Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, each of them a 100-yard producer against Philadelphia — he conceivably has his best team since the Broncos won Super Bowls back to back nearly a decade ago. If so, the principal explanation is that Shanahan at last has Plummer firing completions instead of interceptions.
Stretch Offense Tough on Opponents
SHANAHAN'S OFFENSE is particularly difficult for most opponents to deal with, as Philadelphia rediscovered in Week 8. It's different from other NFL offenses in that the Broncos, as the team that originated the so-called stretch-play series, keep improving it at a time when Denver's stretch-play imitators are just now getting with it.
The Shanahan attack, as shown in its entirety in the Eagle game, features the Bronco offensive line stretching left or right as a seven-man unit to lead a running back into action while, simultaneously, quarterback Plummer rolls out the other way. This forces the defensive team to focus on the run in one direction while playing pass defense far the other way against Plummer.
On a stretch play when Plummer rolls out without the ball, only faking pass, the Denver running back who gets the handoff (Anderson or Bell) races laterally behind the moving offensive line until a gap appears in the defense, whereupon he cuts through the gap and takes off. His immediate destination is a secondary that has been depleted by defensive folks who must also watch out for Plummer's passes on the other side of the field.
All this helps account for the success Shanahan has had over the years with a wide variety of running backs going back at least to Super Bowl MVP Terrell Davis.
The other NFL team most partial to stretch plays now is Indianapolis, where, however, quarterback Peyton Manning normally drops nearly straight back with or without the ball. At Denver, Plummer normally rolls wide. And in a stretch formation, a rollout passer is considerably harder on the defense than a drop-back passer. The rollout guy threatens much more of the field.
Bob Oates can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous columns are available at latimes.com/oates.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times